How to build leaders?

I acquired leadership skills through my role of lead roped party climber. Aged 18 I already took mountaineering clients under my responsibility. I became a recognized alpinist in Belgium, organizing climbing expeditions in Kirghizstan, Mongolia, China, Vietnam and Bolivia. Nowadays, I belong to a special situations team uniquely qualified to rescue people stuck in inaccessible locations.

I would like to develop a leadership development program similar to the training schedule I’m using to prepare people for a mountain expedition.

The values I promote are well represented by the old English proverb “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Ernest Shackelton, a famous leader in adversity, is the example I always use to highlight leadership abilities: set clear objectives, perseverate by all available means, be resilient, keep focused, be creative, maintain awareness of time and space, keep self-controlled, remain optimistic, and build flow with the rest of the team.

Step 1: Psychological preparation

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Create consciousness of the risk and dangers, through exercises at moments where capacity is diminished. Leaders must know their capacity and the one of their teams, and identify when this capacity runs thin. Message: “To climb, the brain is the most important muscle” (Wolfgang Güllich)

Step 2: Physical preparation

Train my future leaders/mountaineers to help them identify the maximum acceptable effort they can deliver while still maintaining margin. Leaders must always keep margin to face unexpected issues.

Step 3: Technical preparation

Intellectual phase, where one acquires the best practices of experienced leaders/mountaineers and makes them his/her own. Guides need to be conscious of their team’s impact on surroundings, so that all actions create maximal added value at the lowest possible cost.

Step 4: Teamwork

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Obstacles need to be faced as a team. In mountaineering, when a climber is in difficulty, all climbers unite to rescue him/her. “Alone we go faster, together we go further” (African Proverb).

Step 5: Planning

To reach ambitious objectives, it is best to plan regular achievable milestones. Climbers don’t go unprepared – they spend more time planning than climbing. Before the deed comes the thought. “Before the achievement comes the dream. Every mountain we climb, we first climb in our mind” (Royal Robbins).

Step 6: Toolkit

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A good climber carries all the necessary tools, of the highest quality, but nothing more, as deadweight is the enemy. Leaders must also master the right balance between tools and execution, a complex balancing act. When your tools fail, then creativity comes into play. The quality of a good leader can be measured by his ability to make tradeoffs.

Step 7: Development

Once I have fully trained my crew, I need to “train them as trainers” to ensure they know how to transmit their learnings to the next generation, while also constantly questioning and improving all they have learned. A good leader prepares his/her succession.

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I’ve used shortened and less intense versions of such trainings with teams in all settings: as an Army officer, mountain guide, dance professor, IT project lead and consultant, etc… I hence confidently believe that this process could be improved by organizing a week-long mountain-climbing leadership training activity, coaching future leaders to reach seemingly unattainable goals.

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